Stuck in your teeth: Onstage Mistakes

Tyrone and Lesley recently* performed to a large crowd at the opening night of Spruke,  Brisbane’s own ukulele festival. Billed as a showcase,  it was a full house, and we were on just before the headliner,  Hawaiian virtuoso Aldrine Guerrero.

Perhaps the idea of a ‘showcase’ might invite us to play the sure fire hits** – songs we know how to play and go over well with an audience. We selected our setlist with this in mind, but each gig we do,  we want to take a risk: to try something new or different.

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We put together a setlist, timed it, and I wrote some notes for patter – the sorts of things I might say inbetween the songs to frame them for an audience. This is scripted, initially, but I’ll tend to use this script only as a guide so I can be immediately present in the moment of performance,  rather than rattling off something I’ve memorized.

We ran through the set a couple of times together in two rehearsals, and me on my own a couple more times in the preceding fortnight. We turned up at the venue,  soundchecked,  mingled with the other artists and prepared to go on.

What could go wrong? We wrote all this material and have road-tested much of it, though we’ve been on an enforced break for a few months we’ve done another gig this week which went very well. Technical difficulties like issues with the PA or instruments can be frustrating when you’ve got your act down but can’t get it across through no fault of your own – but tonight Blair made sure the sound was good and crystal clear.

Early in the set, I merged music and patter, which gave us a false start when the song actually began. We started again and that was fine. I’m lucky to have someone as observant and patient as Sam as my co-performer. We’re pretty tuned in to one another in terms of launching a song without too many cues, but it doesn’t always work.

With this gig, we threw in some new songs: one from a Christmas album we’re about to record, and a couple of other fresh ones. One had a complex, absurd rhyme-based set of lyrics, the other was a rapid-fire, silly tune with a kazoo solo.

InASpotProductionHR-47 (2)Framing the songs as ‘new’ in the preceding patter sets up some kind of expectation, even if all the material is ‘new’ to the punter. I began Song One. Lyrics and music were to begin simultaneously, at least as rehearsed. We started playing the music, but in terms of the words I was meant to be singing my mind was a complete blank. We started again and again the words weren’t there.

We could have just skipped the song, but I persevered,  narrating the experience to the audience so they knew what was going on for us.

I’d rehearsed this song and had nailed the lyrics, or so I thought. As part of this process I had made notes which I knew were in my uke case onstage.  I retrieved them, reviewed them briefly and put them on the floor. We got the song on the third attempt.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (1983)

There were other mistakes in the middle of the set, but this one stands out. It turns out it wasn’t insurmountable and didn’t derail us completely. The show went on.

Ever been to the circus and seen an act where there are two attempts at a stunt before final success, or seen a magician’s trick unexpectedly go wrong because the magic ‘isn’t there yet’? Our enjoyment of the final success is enhanced by the previous attempts – even if they’re premeditated, rehearsed or scripted – here our errors were real but we made it clear we were handling it, and the audience’s attention was in good hands.

InASpotProductionHR-26 (2)A persona enables this information to be handled in a distinct way. ‘David’ (and, I suspect ‘Samuel’) was pretty concerned about making and amending a mistake, but that information isn’t relevant to the performance. If we were ‘characters’ concerned with maintaining some sort of fiction based on a premeditated and memorized sequence of text and action, we would also have been lost. It’s not really an ‘act’, because we’re not acting. Tyrone and Lesley give us courage to do all sorts of things. A persona  enables action within a performance that knows it is a performance

The opposite is also true, when the mistake is not attended to, or blurred by denial or the false primacy of a fictional context. Perhaps you’ve seen a play or a dance where somebody drops something or there’s a prop or wardrobe malfunction. Immediately everyone’s attention is drawn away from the fictional text of what everyone is pretending is going on to the very real thing that’s actually going on, and that attention is transfixed there until something’s done about the problem.

Neither the audience nor the performer looks forward to these moments, and indeed they can’t because they are by definition unpredictable, but they serve a vital function – that is, to point to the fact that this performance is unfolding right in front of us, at this moment. At none other. In a world where we’re glued to screens, and can record and replay moments with a fingertip, these errata, these moments that surface the risk and reward are precious, and in their ‘liveness’,  are unable to be captured by any device.

InASpotProductionHR-2 (2)It was especially important for both Sam and I to be in each other’s presence during these scrappy moments. This is about eye contact, but it’s also about peripheral vision and a kind of musical knowing, when you get a sense of each other’s rhythms within the song. This is a valuable, collaborative skill based in trust that we’ve gathered over 17 years of performing together.

There was a point in this show where Sam needed to have the kazoo ‘pre-set’ in his mouth at the opening of one of the fastest songs we do. The song had started, and I noted it wasn’t there.

At a point just before the solo, we mutually held a pause a bit longer to enable him to do a quick draw, removing his hands from the bass, snatching it from his pocket and shoving it in his chops. His solo hit its mark, and the song continued, galloping on through its nutty paces. We made it. I forgot the lyrics of another song, and a tune with three verses and a bridge and an instrumental became a song with two verses.  Oops. Later a phone alarm went off during the show. It was one of ours: the alarm unexpectedly penetrated flight mode.

We’re experienced enough, I think, to handle problems like these in a way that doesn’t attempt to hide that fact that we’re ‘thrown’ but want to get back in control of the show. The set concluded with some of our more secure material, and we finished with a new song,  which I’m pretty certain went over a treat.

I think musicians attend to their audiences in different ways to theatre actors, who often have to pretend they’re not there at all, and comedians,  whose performance is based entirely in reciprocal engagement.

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Whatever mode you’re in, it’s funny, it’s common for performers to report that they can kind of hear when the audience is listening, even when there is nothing to actually listen to. Perhaps they were attending to us more carefully on this night we’d fluffed all our other new songs in some way.

We walked offstage, shaking our heads a bit. For us, there were more problems than usual, but it was still a good show. Neither of us felt good about the mistakes we’d made, yet we knew we’d performed well, even though moments of our set hadn’t gone well musically.

An audience comes to see you play live to be in your presence. Your performance isn’t a performance unless you are in the audience’s presence. You have to be there. Miskates are rude reminders of this basic fact. If you’re not taking risks,  and only doing the stuff you know is going to work,  and work well; if you want your performance to be entirely predictable,  then… it will be entirely predictable.

Performing your own music live is hard enough without wanting to invite these kind of problems into your show – we wouldn’t take unnecessary risks, but mitsakes happen. Once we got chatting to people who’d witnessed our show it was clear that the usual phenomenon was in operation – that errors that seem tragic to you onstage, were barely noticeable to the audience,  or as one person said (in relation to the alarm going off, unbelievably) ‘we thought that was part of the show’.

Like a little something stuck in your teeth, it seems huge to you because it’s in your mouth, but the rest of the world doesn’t really care until you start fretting about it, or grinning like there’s nothing wrong.

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*Author’s note: this piece was written shortly after the gig (October 2015) but remained unpublished for several months because I was uncertain about writing about ‘things going wrong’.

**Tyrone and Lesley have no ‘hits’ in the chart sense of the word. We have the numerics of songs that are streamed or purchased more than others online, but see no need to build our live setlists from that data.

images cropped from photographs by Dylan Evans, shot at Metro Arts in November 2015

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3 responses to “Stuck in your teeth: Onstage Mistakes

  1. Hi David, I was there that night stage right taking the official event photos. To me your show was fabulous and seemed spontaneous, possible with scripted fumbles if any were noted.
    I am just starting my performance life with uke, hopefully progressing from a large group now to smaller more intimate musical group.
    It is good to know that my fumbles now will probably continue but I’ll just get better at covering up 😉
    Thanks for the story, your a true professional.

    • I think you might have seen some already in my WordPress blog, Mike Heaton Photography. You have followed me already. I’ll also see if I have any additional that I can share with you.

      Ps. Did my first gig with a new three piece called Duke Ukem. And yes I fumbled but had a lot of fun. Can’t wait for the next gig.

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